Myths and Mediterranean diets

med-diet-imageCommon to dodos and Mediterranean diets is the fact that they seem to exist in the imagination rather than in fact. There are, moreover, several misconceptions as to what the Mediterranean diet actually consisted of.

Those of us who experienced the sort of diet that the average person had in the decades of the post World War Two period might find it difficult to equate it with what is being touted these days as a Mediterranean diet. The daily fare of the farmer working the field all day or the lunch that the city dweller carried with him  often consisted primarily of half a loaf of bread with a smidgen of cheese or a sprinkle of oil.

Children rushing famished from school would delight in ħobż biż-żejt – a slice of bread with the thinnest film of oil spread with a slice of tomato or tomato paste.

Most importantly, we drank water not sugary drinks. Meat on a once-a-week basis and fish when available. On a day-by-day basis one had to rely on the famous minestra, largely made up of vegetables, with perhaps some cheese or a bone when available.

What fat?  We got most of the energy required from carbohydrates, bread or pasta, not animal products. And as everybody knows, hardly anybody was fat, and diabetes was not that common.

It is essential to distinguish the ideal diet for the healthy person (including children) as opposed to what is required by a diabetic. Most articles seem to conflate the needs of these two distinct conditions.

Now we seem to have gone over to the other extreme, pendulum like, and gurus keep advertising the benefit of fat over carbohydrates.

The real distinction should be placed on the quantity and not so much on the quality or the relative values of foodstuffs. The epidemic of obesity is due to what has become known in the US as ‘supersizing’, where the average serve would suffice to feed a whole family in the developing world.

In children, the major problem appears to be sugary drinks which have become the greatest single danger accounting for obesity in this age group.

When we come to diabetes, the situation is quite different. The basic problem with diabetes is the inability of the body to digest sugars and, therefore, every effort should be made to reduce them. Hence the importance of reducing the level of carbohydrates (which are converted into sugars in the body). In this respect, a proportionately-increased fat and protein intake would be helpful in reducing sugar levels.  What is necessary for a person with diabetes is not ideal for a healthy person.

The importance of exercise in both healthy or diabetic persons cannot be overemphasized.  In the past, the average healthy person on a ‘Mediterranean type’ diet did not need to go to gyms or traipse around the village to burn excess calories. Work was practically always energy-expending and manual. Few had the luxury of sitting at a desk all day where energy expenditure is not a major feature.

Walking considerable distance to work was not thought as exceptional. Children in particular had whole streets to play in and were never couped up for hours in front of a screen. If exercise is important to maintain a healthy body, it is crucial for the control of diabetes.

The mythical ‘Mediterranean diet’ is now a thing of the past, but the principles underlying healthy eating habits have not really changed.

One also has to bear in mind that what is an essential diet for a diabetic person may not be ideal for a healthy person.

[First published in timesofmalta.com on 6 Nov 2016]

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